Jewelry on Shabbat: Pretty or Prohibited?

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by R. Yaakov Hoffman

Many women would be aghast at the idea of omitting jewelry from their Shabbat wardrobe. It may thus come as a surprise that the Talmud unequivocally forbids women from wearing jewelry on Shabbat.1 Even pious women, however, seem to ignore this prohibition—a fact with which poskim have grappled since the earliest post-Talmudic times.

Wearing adornments (tachshitim) on Shabbat certainly does not violate the prohibition of carrying (hotza’ah) per se. The Sages, however, were concerned lest women take off certain types of tachshitim and wind up carrying them outside.2 Regarding jewelry in particular, the potential pitfall is that she might show the item off to a friend.3

But did Chazal impose this edict only to avoid possibility of a direct Biblical transgression? If so, perhaps the restriction applies only to a reshut ha-rabbim, where carrying is Biblically forbidden. Alternatively, it is possible that the edict covers other locales as well—after all, a person could easily forget and walk from a domain where carrying is not Biblically prohibited into one where it is.

The Mishnah implies that, with extremely limited exceptions, women may not wear tachshitim even in an enclosed courtyard (chatzer).4 The preeminent amora Rav follows the Mishnah, but R. Anani bar Sason accepts a dissenting Tannaitic opinion that permits all jewelry in a chatzer.5

Predictably, the vast majority of Rishonim rule in accordance with Rav. They differ, however, regarding the scope of the proscription. According to Rambam and others, jewelry is only restricted in a courtyard lacking an eruv (i.e., communal bread symbolically uniting all residents thereof).6 In such a chatzer, since some carrying remains forbidden—one may carry only within the courtyard itself but not to the adjacent houses—the concern for inadvertent jewelry removal remains pertinent.

Ramban and Rashba, however, vociferously contest Rambam’s ruling. They prohibit jewelry even in a courtyard with an eruv—despite the fact that carrying there is unrestricted. Although this position is, prima facie, counterintuitive, its logic is sound: Someone carrying an object by hand will likely remember to set it down before entering the public domain, whereas a jewelry-bedecked woman will probably not take heed to remove her adornments.7 Due to this concern, Rashba goes so far as to maintain that a woman may not wear jewelry on Shabbat at all, even in her own home.8

Based on the above, the practice to wear jewelry on Shabbat in many areas nowadays is readily understandable. Since most Jewish communities are graced with an eruv (i.e., a symbolic enclosure plus unifying bread), women are simply following the opinion that permits jewelry in a “courtyard with an eruv.”9 But what about a place lacking an eruv?

Tosafot quotes Rabbenu Tam as justifying the practice of women wearing jewelry even in a locale where carrying is proscribed.10 Rabbenu Tam argues that the halacha accords with the Talmudic opinion of R. Anani, who permits jewelry in any courtyard, even one lacking an eruv. Rabbenu Tam understands R. Anani to mean that wearing jewelry is permissible in any place where carrying is only rabbinically forbidden. That would include an unenclosed karmelit (i.e., a public area not meeting the technical criteria of a reshut ha-rabbim). After all, even if a woman removes her jewelry in such a place, she will not have violated a Biblical prohibition.

Rabbenu Tam, along with many Rishonim, considers a street to be a reshut ha-rabbim only if it serves a population of 600,000.11 Since such thoroughfares were virtually non-existent in medieval Europe, every street that a Jewish woman would encounter had the status of a karmelit. Practically, speaking, then, women of his time were entirely free to wear jewelry on Shabbat.

Ri, however, rejects Rabbenu Tam’s view, arguing that R. Anani intended his permission of jewelry to apply only to an enclosed courtyard, not to an unenclosed karmelit. Rabbenu Baruch finds Ri’s critique cogent; nonetheless, he accepts Rabbenu Tam’s justification of wearing jewelry on Shabbat in light of changed circumstances: In Talmudic times, permitting jewelry in a karmelit would have been ill-advised because women could easily have gotten confused between a karmelit and a reshut ha-rabbim. In medieval times, however, a true reshut ha-rabbim was nonexistent (according to many opinions); thus, a woman could wear jewelry in a karmelit since there was no chance of her accidentally veering into a reshut ha-rabbim.

Tosafot further cites a singular ruling of Rav Sar Shalom Gaon that completely undermines the prohibition.12 According to Rav Sar Shalom, Chazal never meant to enact a blanket, enduring prohibition of jewelry;13 they only meant to call attention to the practical concern that a woman might remove and carry her jewelry in public and thereby desecrate Shabbat.14 Rav Sar Shalom notes that in his day it was unheard of for a woman to display her jewelry in the street. Thus, in his era it was—and in the 21st century presumably still is—entirely permissible for women to wear jewelry on Shabbat even in a full-fledged reshut ha-rabbim.15

In the final analysis, Tosafot is not truly satisfied with any of the lenient rulings, concluding with: “our early authorities have said that they are permitted to go out wearing [jewelry], for it is better that they sin unwittingly than willingly.”16 In other words, women are quite attached to their jewelry, and will surely not obey rabbis’ admonitions to part therefrom on Shabbat. It follows from Tosafot, though, that a woman who actively wishes to conduct herself in accordance with the strict letter of halacha should be encouraged not to wear jewelry on Shabbat.17

One would think we could look to Shulchan Aruch for a bottom-line ruling on this subject; instead, Shulchan Aruch just lists virtually all the opinions on the topic!18 Shulchan Aruch also records the laxity in this matter on the part of Jewish women, and presents two explanations therefor: The first is that women’s common practice is actually in error, but one should nevertheless not protest since women will not listen. The second explanation is that women are acting in accordance with the ruling of Rabbenu Tam, which is that the decree lost its force in post-Talmudic times due to the fact that virtually all streets have the status of a karmelit.19 Rema adds that the women might also be following the opinion of Sar Shalom Gaon.

In any event, it appears that Shulchan Aruch is uncomfortable with the lenient practice and feels that women really should not wear jewelry on Shabbat, at least outside an eruv.20 Some later poskim, such as the Vilna Gaon and Alter Rebbe of Chabad, strongly encourage stringency in this matter—going so far as to say that a pious woman should avoid jewelry on Shabbat entirely,21 even at home.22

Aruch HaShulchan, however, finds himself conflicted.23 On the one hand, he is unwilling to accept the idea that observant Jewish women are essentially flouting this halacha. On the other hand, he finds the lenient approach of Rabbenu Tam—that jewelry is permitted since reshuyot ha-rabbim are no longer extant—very difficult. First of all, many Rishonim hold that any wide, public thoroughfare is a reshut ha-rabbim regardless of the number of people who traverse it. Second of all, there are roads in modern times that do service 600,000 people.24 Thus, many metropolitan areas (from the 19th century onward) do contain streets that even Rabbenu Tam would consider a reshut ha-rabbim. Due to this quandary, Aruch HaShulchan argues that the opinion of Rav Sar Shalom Gaon—the only one who permits jewelry outright even in a reshut ha-rabbim—is the absolutely normative law.

We have seen that halachic scholars throughout the centuries have exerted great effort to justify the common practice of women to wear jewelry on Shabbat. In today’s milieu, however, there is a greater consciousness of legal texts among the general populace, and many people wish to adopt an optimal standard of halachic practice. How should a woman of this persuasion conduct herself?

Several recent authorities, following in the footsteps of Aruch HaShulchan, feel that the lenient approach to jewelry has been sanctioned by generations of pious Jewish women and great poskim; thus, women need not hesitate to wear jewelry on Shabbat.25 Others maintain that a conscientious woman (ba‘alat nefesh) should refrain from wearing jewelry on Shabbat anywhere it is forbidden to carry—or, at the very least, in an area that could be a reshut ha-rabbim.26

If a woman wishes to adopt the stringent view, may she wear jewelry in a place where there is an eruv, but one upon which she does not rely? If she refrains from carrying therein as a stringency—to avoid any possibility of a Biblical infraction—it seems she may rely on the eruv vis-à-vis the rabbinic prohibition of jewelry.27 However, she should not wear jewelry there if she believes the eruv is completely invalid.

 


  1. According to most authorities, it is permissible for a man to wear masculine jewelry. Some, however, recommend that a man be stringent and refrain from wearing decorative jewelry as well. For some references on this topic, see R. Shalom Gelber and R. Yitzchak Rubin, <em>Orchot Shabbat</em>, chapter 28, note 300. 

  2. In addition to jewelry, Chazal forbade wearing anything that constitutes a barrier (<em>chatzitzah</em>) during ritual immersion (<em>Shabbat </em>57a), as well as loose adornments that might easily fall off (<em>Orach Chayim</em> 301:7). It should be noted that throughout the article, we use “jewelry” as a general term for prohibited <em>tachshitim</em>. Technically, the restriction is not limited to what we would call “jewelry” in English, and some types of jewelry might be permitted in certain situations. For details, see <em>Orach Chayim </em>303. 

  3. <em>Bavli, Shabbat</em> 59b; <em>Yerushalmi, Shabbat</em> 7d. 

  4. <em>Shabbat</em> 6:5. 

  5. <em>Shabbat </em>64b. All references in this article to the Talmud and commentaries are to this page unless otherwise noted. 

  6. <em>Hilchot Shabbat</em> 19:8. 

  7. For this reason, some hold that one may not place an object in one’s pocket or belt on Shabbat, even indoors, lest one absentmindedly step outside while carrying it (<em>Orach Chayim</em> 303:17). 

  8. <em>Avodat haKodesh </em>3:2; see also Tosafot, <em>Menachot</em> 36b, s.v. <em>ve’i ka-savar</em>. Ramban, while suggesting this possibility, ultimately rejects it; he even encourages women to wear jewelry at home on Shabbat in order to maximize their attractiveness to their husbands. Presumably, a private, enclosed yard would have the status of a “home” and not a “courtyard.” 

  9. The fact that the main proponent of this opinion is Rambam, who would not accept the validity of most contemporary communal <em>eruvin</em>, is irrelevant since the issues are not interdependent. 

  10. S.v. <em>Rav Anani</em>. 

  11. See R. Moshe Mordechai Karp, <em>Hilchot Shabbat beShabbat</em>, vol. 3, bottom of p. 311, regarding the opinion of Rabbenu Tam in this matter. 

  12. See <em>Otzar haGe’onim </em>to <em>Shabbat</em> 59bff. for other Geonic approaches, some of which parallel lenient approaches of the <em>Rishonim</em>. 

  13. The other <em>poskim</em> hold that the prohibition against jewelry follows the general principle governing rabbinic restrictions (<em>gezerot</em>), which is that they remain in force even if circumstances change so that the stated reasoning does not apply. Furthermore, Chazal may have had other reasons for the edict that they did not publicize (see <em>Ma‘aseh Rav </em>[5769 edition], p. 106). Cf. <em>Midrash Tanchuma</em>, <em>Parashat vaYishlach </em>12, which expresses disapproval of appearing with jewelry in public for reasons of modesty. 

  14. See also Ra’avan 349. <em>Hagahot Maimuniyot</em> (Shabbat 19:6) seems to assume that this is the opinion of Rambam as well. He apparently infers this from the language of <em>halacha </em>5: “anything that is a <em>tachshit </em>that does not fall and it is not [a woman’s] way to display it—it is permitted to go out with it.” However, this is probably referring to a type of adornment that is intrinsically unlikely to be taken off, not to a woman who would not remove the jewelry. Cf. Tosafot, <em>Shabbat</em> 59a, s.v. <em>man darkah</em>. 

  15. Despite the difficulty with this approach (see above, n. 13), Geonic opinions carry great weight. The fact that this rule was interpreted leniently at such an early point in history surely contributed to the widespread practice of women to wear jewelry on Shabbat even outside an <em>eruv</em>. 

  16. Cf. <em>Beitzah</em> 30a. This sentiment is echoed by many <em>Rishonim</em> in their discussion of jewelry on Shabbat. 

  17. Ritva (s.v. <em>u-l‘inyan</em>) notes that some rabbis of his time did, in fact, forbid their wives from wearing jewelry on Shabbat. 

  18. Orach Chayim 303:18. 

  19. See <em>Hilchot Shabbat beShabbat </em>(vol. 3, p. 366, n. 52) for an explanation as to how this jives with <em>Shulchan Aruch</em>’s apparent preference for the opinion that a street can be a <em>reshut ha-rabbim </em>even without a population of 600,000 (<em>Orach Chayim</em> 345:7). 

  20. <em>Bei’ur Halacha </em>303, s.v. <em>ki ba-zeh</em>. <em>Shulchan Aruch </em>presumably thinks that the basic <em>halacha</em> follows Rambam and allows jewelry anywhere carrying is permissible, since he mentions this opinion first. See <em>Sha‘ar haTziyun </em>303:55. 

  21. <em>Ma‘aseh Rav </em>142, <em>Shulchan Aruch haRav</em> 303:23. Note, however, that in <em>Bei’ur HaGra </em>the Vilna Gaon seems to rule that in accordance with Rambam (<em>Mishnah Berurah</em> 303:61). It appears, then, that the Vilna Gaon recommended adhering to the stricter opinion merely as a stringency, probably due to the practical difficulty of always taking care to remove one’s jewelry before one leaves an <em>eruv</em>. 

  22. See, however, R. M.M. Karp’s persuasive argument that even if it there is a preference not to wear jewelry in any courtyard, one may certainly be lenient within one’s home (<em>Hilchot Shabbat beShabbat</em>, vol. 3, p. 366, note 52). 

  23. <em>Orach Chayim</em> 303:21-2. 

  24. Incidentally, this lends credence to the approach that 600,000 people need not actually traverse the area daily in order for it to be considered a <em>reshut ha-rabbim </em>according to the lenient definition. It is sufficient that the metropolitan area served by the thoroughfare contain a population of that size. 

  25. See <em>Orchot Shabbat</em>, chap. 38, note 299, in the name of <em>Chazon Ish</em> and R. Shmuel Auerbach. (It is curious that <em>Chazon Ish </em>was lenient about this, since he usually follows the opinion of the Vilna Gaon.) When the Brisker Rav’s daughter asked her father point blank if she should refrain from wearing jewelry on Shabbat, he refused to answer her (R. M.M. Karp, personal communication). Presumably, this anecdote is to be interpreted as follows: the Brisker Rav could not in good conscience issue a permissive ruling because he personally would have been stringent on this matter had it applied to him, but he did not consider it proper to rule stringently for others, even close family. 

  26. <em>Mishnah Berurah, Dirshu </em>edition, 303 n. 32-33. 

  27. Cf. <em>Hilchot Shabbat beShabbat</em>, vol. 3, p. 366, note 52. 

About Yaakov Hoffman

Yaakov Hoffman is the rabbi of Washington Heights Congregation and a member of the Kollel L’Horaah of RIETS. He has had a lifelong interest in the history of halacha and is a practicing sofer. He can be reached at [email protected]

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